Light-tackling Tarpon

The flashing silver of a rolling tarpon, suddenly appearing within an easy cast with a fly or plug, has to be one of the most suspenseful moments in angling.

Flyfishers and light tackle anglers, who thrill at the sight of a silver king going airborne, are seeing this happen more and more often around the jetties, passes, inlets, beachfronts, bays and rivers of the Texas coast.

Armed with Lefty’s Deceivers and MirrOLures, these anglers walk the rocks on the South Jetty at Port Aransas, hooking, jumping and occasionally landing silver kings of all sizes – from three-feet-long juveniles to 7-foot-long giants. They hunt tarpon that are pounding dusky anchovies in the surf, along the 60-mile Padre Island National Seashore from Corpus Christi to the East Cut at Port Mansfield. They will gladly put in an entire day at Port O’Connor, just to make a few well-placed casts to the giant tarpon that roll around the crab traps on Espiritu Santo Bay. They hunt the Gulf beachfronts, making casts to roaming schools of 50 to 60 tarpon.

Texas anglers and guides also target large tarpon on heavier tackle each season from Sabine Pass to Galveston’s ‘Tarpon Alley’, drifting menhaden and mullet or going deep with heavy “Coon Pop” jigs. But most of the action for the fly and light tackle tarpon angler is centered along the middle and lower Texas Coast – from Port O’Connor to South Padre Island.

Brazos Santiago Pass at South Padre Island was recently rated among the 14 best tarpon fishing grounds in the world by Sportfishing magazine. The list included such storied tarpon grounds as Key West, Boca Grande and Homasassa Fla., as well as other famous international tarpon destinations from Mexico to Africa.

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A number of factors have played a role in the run-up of ‘tarpon fever’ by Texas anglers in recent seasons. One is the emergence, in recent years, of a number of experienced fly and light tackle flats guides who have added tarpon fishing skills to their craft.

These include Tom Horbey, Scott Sommerlatte and Kevin Townnsend in Port O’Connor; Jackie Campbell in Seadrift; Ken Jones in Port Aransas; Billy Sandifer, Jeff Wolda, Johnny Quiroz and Marcus Rodriguez on the Padre Island National Seashore: Terry Neal in Port Mansfield; Ben Paschal and John Pilmer in Arroyo City and Eric Glass and Vere Wells in South Padre Island.

These veteran guides offer anglers a realistic shot at finding, hooking, jumping, and landing a silver king during the prime tarpon months.

Captain Eric Glass, one of the most experienced and successful flats guides and tarpon specialists on the Texas Coast, had one stretch last season when his flyfishing clients hooked tarpon on 11 out of 14 days on the water.

A former Brownsville school teacher, Glass first landed tarpon fishing on his own with the flyrod three decades ago on after-school jaunts up the Padre Island beach to the South Jetty at Port Mansfield.

Glass says he and other flyfishers in the Valley first learned about the tarpon game in the mid-1980s from Tom Kilgore, a pioneer tarpon angler and fly shop owner in Harlingen. Later, Glass teamed up with others who had tarpon fever, including Howard and Marsh Stussey, “Two Tarpon” Tommy Daughters and Sid and Floyd Davis from Austin, to tap the explosive tarpon action on fly and light tackle that they discovered around the passes and beachfronts of the lower coast.

Glass recalls one of those early adventures, traveling up the South Padre beach late one afternoon, when he met his friend Sid Davis, who had driven down the beach to alert him to a hot tarpon bite in the surf just to the north.

“There was an acre of 40- to 60-pound tarpon in the first gut,” Glass said. “The Davis brothers had been up there all day and Sid was coming from the battle to get me,” he says. “They jumped 25 tarpon that day.” It was getting late in the evening when he arrived at the melee, Glass said. “There were tarpon just crashing bait on dry land almost. I hooked a 60-pounder right away on an old 12 weight Loomis flyrod.”

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Port O’Connor

The increased shows of tarpon around the jetties, passes, outer beachfronts and bays at Port O’Connor, another historic Texas tarpon ground, also has attracted fly and light tackle anglers there in recent years.

The hunt for tarpon on the waters around Port O’Connor got a shot of adrenalin in 2003, when Scott Graham hooked, landed, measured, photographed, revived and released a 7’3”, 200-pound class giant there on a fly. That fish, and many other large ones since, were caught on Espiritu Santo Bay, within sight of the water tower in downtown Port O’Connor.

That bay is among four prime tarpon features accessed by boat out of Port O’Connor.

Fishing with Capt. Tom Horbey in Port O’Connor last October, we spotted a huge tarpon rolling slowly near some crab traps on a channel edge on Espiritu Santo Bay. I made several casts at the boils and bubbles the big fish was making. I was excited to get the shots at the big fish, although I didn’t draw a strike and the casts could have been a lot better. It is amazing what the appearance of a giant tarpon at almost point blank range will do to a usually sound and steady casting form with a 12-weight fly rod.

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Matagorda Channel Jetties

The Matagorda Channel Jetties also are accessible by boat from launch ramps and marinas in Port O’Connor. Anglers can fish the channel and surf by boat or anchor on the flats at the base of the jetties and walk out to fish the edges of the rocks.

Pass Cavallo

Another ancestral tarpon feature, Pass Cavallo continues to draw the silver king. From July to early November, tarpon in the 50- to 70-pound class often can be found schooling and feeding on an outgoing tide in about 20 feet of water and within 2 miles of the Gulf Side of the pass.

Port O’Connor Beachfront

Horbey says, on a good day, fishing the outside beaches of Port O’Connor, his clients can get 15 to 20 opportunities to cast to groups of 50 to 60 tarpon traveling along the beachfront surf.

Port Aransas

The jetties, passes, inlets and beachfronts around Port Aransas, the most famous of the Texas tarpon fishing grounds, also have enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the silver king, especially by fly fishers and light tackle anglers.

San Antonio native Todd Fleming, along with fellow members of the Alamo Fly Fishers, has had success in recent years, often fishing overnight on the rocks at the North Jetty at Port Aransas.

“I’ve hooked and jumped three or four in an evening,” Fleming says. “But it would be in a two-hour period. And others around me would be having the same action when they turn on.”

Ken Jones, a flyfishing guide in Port Aransas, fishes the shallow flats for redfish and trout and also offers tarpon fishing tours on foot at the South Jetty.

A good day tarpon fishing, Jones says, is seeing one fish roll on the surface, a great day is seeing multiple fish roll and maybe hooking one, and an awesome day is landing one.

He says the first tarpon he caught at Port Aransas was on a white gurgler fly that he cast off the tip of the South Jetty. “They were three-year old tarpon, no more than two feet long, but that is what got it started.”

Jones has had success hooking tarpon on his own fly patterns that imitate mullet and watermelon shad (scaled sardines). “They tend to hit the watermelon shad a lot softer than they do a mullet,” Jones says. “They really whack a mullet good.”

Jones has hooked, jumped and landed a number of tarpon off the North and South Jetties at Port Aransas himself, but one of his most memorable moments came with one of his clients last season. It was last September, around noon on the South Jetty. “I was standing ten feet behind my client, who was throwing backcasts with his fly rod that day because of the wind.”

“We saw a tarpon come up. It looked at my client, then it looked at the fly, then it ate the fly and my client struck it. It was just mayhem after that.”

That fish ultimately broke off, but Jones and other witnesses say it was all of seven feet long and 150 pounds and left a lasting memory.

Some seasons tarpon will hang around Port Aransas into the late fall. In 2012, Bob Bennett, a geologist and tarpon aficionado from Corpus Christi, landed nine silver kings between Thanksgiving and Christmas using spinning tackle and plugs off the South Jetty.

Bennett says he caught his first tarpon five years ago on the surf side of the South Packery Jetty. “I felt a little ‘pick..pick’ on the lure and I set the hook,” he says. “The next thing, I was eye-to-eye with a six foot tarpon. It ran about 10 feet, shook the plug and swam off.”

Bennett has been fishing for tarpon religiously every since. He says it took him three years to leave the spinning rod at home, but now he has added the flyrod to the hunt. He caught his first two tarpon on the flyrod in 2013 – one at the Packery Channel and the other at the South Jetty at Port Aransas.

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Packery Channel

Another outstanding tarpon feature on the middle Texas coast is Packery Channel, which connects the south end of Corpus Christi Bay and the upper end of the Laguna Madre with the Gulf of Mexico. This pass, which reopened in 2006, separates the south end of Mustang Island and the beginning of Padre Island.

The channel’s strong current exchange between the Gulf and the back-bay estuaries of Corpus Christi Bay and upper Laguna Madre pushes baitfish through the old Corpus Christi Pass, which in turn draws tarpon and other game fish.

Perry Detore, a veteran fly fisher from Corpus Christi, has caught tarpon on the flyrod from the North and South Jetties at Packery Channel, the Port Aransas Jetties and the Mustang Island and Padre Island beachfronts.

He says tarpon begin to show up in March and April. They stay through the summer and reach peak activity in October and November. Prime times are first light, at sundown and after dark, but he also has found them feeding midday. “I’ve been in front of tarpon casting for hours and maybe only hooking one or losing one, then all of a sudden, they turn on,” he says. “There will be about 30 minutes when they kind of go crazy.”

In 2013, Detore hooked more than one hundred tarpon, landing 23 on the fly. Last year he landed more than a half dozen. He has landed two tarpon at the Packery Channel, weighing more than 80 pounds, and lost a few that were estimated in the 130-140 pound class. “They just kept going,” he says. “I wasn’t going to land them on the rocks anyway.”

Detore says the most tarpon he has landed in one day was four. “They were smaller fish and it was pretty quick – over a couple of hours.”

He says tarpon in the 40-pound class are often present there during the prime fishing months. “A forty pounder will be all you can handle,” he says. “It is only fifty-fifty that you are going to land one.”

Padre Island National Seashore

Billy Sandifer, the renowned beach guide who took anglers on safaris down the beach for years before retiring recently, suggests that anglers looking for tarpon should spend a lot of time inspecting the big schools of ladyfish, or skipjack that fill the surf in the fall.

“The only way you can make sure it is a ladyfish is by wading out in the surf and looking,” he says. “I have gone out there and immediately, in four feet of water, seen tarpon and jack crevalle right in there with the ladyfish.”

Jeff Wolda, another Padre Island beach guide who operates Padre Island Light Tackle Adventures, also keeps a lookout for tarpon on his runs down the beach. He says they can turn up anywhere along the 62 mile run to the Mansfield jetties.

He recalls the time he was casting a lure for trout and reds into a shallow, light breaking surf and hooked and jumped a 100-pound class tarpon. “That will get your attention,” he says.

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Arroyo Colorado River

Capt. John Pilmer and Capt. Ben Paschal of Arroyo City regularly travel down the Arroyo Colorado to access the prime flats for sightcasting to speckled trout and redfish on the heart of the Lower Laguna Madre near Harlingen.

They have each landed juvenile tarpon that they occasionally observe rolling on the arroyo. On some occasions between trips to the flats, their clients will take a shot at these tarpon.

“These little tarpon are in the back yard,” Pilmer says. “But the challenge is that they are so hard to predict when and where they are going to turn up.”

“If they start rolling around here and I see them out my door, I’ll put a rod in the boat that is rigged for them because you have to hit it if it is right.”

He says he has looked out his window on the arroyo and seen fish rolling and gone to the garage and grabbed a rod, put a tippet on it and hooked and landed a tarpon. “It usually happens early in the morning or late in the evening,” he says.

Paschal, who also guides flyfishers on sightcasting adventures for trophy trout and redfish on the Lower Laguna Madre, on occasion offers his clients the opportunity to cast to the little tarpon on the Arroyo.

He has caught tarpon off his dock and he has landed as many as six or seven in a day, fishing on his own on the river. He says a good day for a client would be to jump several fish and land one or two.

He says that while there are always tarpon in the river, hooking them on fly and light tackle is extremely challenging.

Paschal says he has caught them on the flyrod but that it is much easier to catch them using spin tackle and artificials.

Stormy weather can be good for tarpon fishing on the river, Paschal says. “That’s good because it gives my clients an option. And I can fish right out in front of my house.”

Most Texas tarpon guides and anglers would agree with Eric Glass’s assessment of tarpon fishing in Texas. “It is impossible to schedule. It is very sensitive to sea conditions. It can be very difficult. But if you ever get to see what it can be like once, you’re ruined.”

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